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Global Physics Department Update

April 22, 2011

The Global Physics Department has just completed its sixth weekly meeting, and we are now consistently averaging 20 physics teachers, from both high school and college gathering on Wednesdays at 9:30pm EST to discuss some developments in physics or physics teaching. This collaboration has become one of the highlights of my week, and I’m consistently amazed by how it all began with a few tweets between practical strangers.

I think this may very well be one of the largest collaborations between college professors and high school physics teachers around. For probably the first 5 years of my teaching, I never spoke to a single college professor, and I thought the worlds of high school and college physics teaching were two completely separate worlds—even at AAPT meetings. And I didn’t talk much with even high school teachers outside my school all that often—probably only the one time every other year when I’d go to an AAPT meeting or such. This greatly impeded my learning as a teacher, and I’m sure there are other teachers out there who have had similar experiences. Certainly blogging, tweeting and all the ways to connect with s colleagues online has brought much of this to an end for the teachers who choose to engage social media, but I think the Global Physics Department promises even more connection, by allowing for real voice conversation, live demonstrations and presentations.

The future of the department also looks to be very bright. Last week, we discussed having one of our upcoming meetings focus on the latest discoveries in physics, and Andy Rundquist thought he might try to invite super famous physicist/cosmologist Sean Carroll to talk about some of the recent discoveries at Fermilab. (by the way, Sean also maintains an incredible blog, Cosmic Variance). While I originally thought this would be neat if Sean would write back, I also wasn’t super hopeful, since he is a very busy guy. Still, I should erase these doubts from my head, since there are so many instances out there of people who will go to great lengths to help out if you just ask (this should be an essential learning of every high school). And, unsurprisingly, Sean wrote Andy back the very next day and they’re now working out the scheduling details.

Next week’s GPD is going to be led by Danny Cabellero, who is going to be talking about using vpython to develop dynamic computational models of physical systems. Danny has been working with a team of computer science students at Georgia Tech to develop an amazing set of tools that students can use in vpython to do things like add a timer to the simulation, have the object regularly drop breadcrumbs to mark its position, and/or drop vectors do indicate quantities like force, velocity and easily create graphs of any quantities of their choosing.

I’ve often said things to my class like “imagine you could watch this pendulum with a special set of free body diagram glasses that would let you see the force as it oscillates—what would you see?” Now, I can actually do this, and take it even further—students could build a model in vpython of a pendulum, and then explore with this tools to actually show the force vectors. And they wouldn’t have to limit themselves to a simple pendulum, either. Exploring model for large amplitudes would require just changing a single parameter—the whole program would be less than 20 lines of code!

Here’s a simple sample of an space voyage program created by Danny that I modified to show an elliptical orbit just to give you a sense of what this software can do. I’ve also posted the code so you can check out the program if you like (Note the code won’t actually run without the package, which isn’t ready for distribution just yet).

If you’re interested in learning more, please join us at the next meeting of the Global Physics Department, Wednesday, April 27 at 9:30pm. Also, Danny asks that you fill out this very brief informational survey to help him better prepare his presentation to meet your needs.

Vpython GPD Survey (please complete before Monday).

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jessica Sanders permalink
    April 30, 2011 2:33 pm

    My name is Jessica Sanders and I am a student in Dr. Strange’s EDM 310 class at the University of South Alabama. I really enjoyed your blog posts and ideas this semester. I can tell that you really enjoy your job,and also science and its related fields. Keep up the good work and continue to do research! You never know who you will inspire in the next generation.


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